Craig Venter and the Alien Zombies from Mars

©  2014, Russ Hodge

(sorry, Hollywood: I thought of it first!)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve really missed Craig Venter. Oh where have you been, oh guru, oh Guitar Hero of molecular biology? I just haven’t been able to think of Craig in any other way since that article in Wired magazine, which described him thus:

You are standing at the edge of a lagoon on a South Pacific island. The nearest village is 20 miles away, reachable only by boat. The water is as clear as air. Overhead, white fairy terns hover and peep among the coconut trees. Perhaps 100 yards away, you see a man strolling in the shallows. He is bald, bearded, and buck naked. He stoops every once in a while to pick up a shell or examine something in the sand …

That’s our Craig! If you’ve missed him too, HE’s BACK! And once again, he’s making news from the cusp, the cutting-edge, the very BRINK of modern science. Most people keep a respectful distance from the brink, in fear of falling off, but not Craig Venter. The man has no fear of heights at all. He’s even willing to lean way over the edge… It’s the fastest way to get your picture back on the cover of Time magazine. Maybe this time in the nude.

Craig has been off the grid, popping up from time to time in an airport with his pet monkey (no, wait, that was Justin Bieber). Maybe he’s been spending time on that huge yacht he bought with his profits from the human genome. He deserved it. Single-handedly deciphering the human genome is hard work!

But now we know that as he’s been roaming the open seas and idyllic, deserted beaches, he’s been doing a lot more than obtaining the perfect tan, equally distributed across all parts of his body. He’s also been thinking: What next? What’s the next Big Problem facing mankind? If you’ve got a biomedical megacorporation at your disposal – do something with it, man!

He considered a couple of options. He was thinking about curing death, for example, but Google beat him to the punch. Google would be stiff competition, with all their considerable expertise in the life sciences. You wouldn’t want two companies competing with each other to solve the problem of death, now would you? Remember when that happened with the human genome?

Uh, it got finished a lot faster that way…

Then he thought about cloning dinosaurs, but Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg grabbed that one up. Old news. The second guy to try something NEVER makes it to the cover of Time magazine.

That left only one problem of sufficient importance to attract a Big Thinker like Craig: extraterrrestrial life! Craig decided to go find it, and not only that – to bring it back to Earth! And grow it in the lab! What could possibly go wrong???

For those of us who might think this sounds crazy, well, we just have simpler, less visionary minds than Craig. Behind this beautiful idea is a complex thought process that most of us just aren’t capable of. Here are the steps:

  1. It’s hard to find alien life on Earth unless it is very large, resembles a cross between a reptile and an insect, and starts eating people.
  2. Therefore, we’ll have to look for it someplace else.
  3. Mars is close, so let’s look there. (Adhering to that fundamental scientific principle: If you drop a coin, look for it in well-lighted areas, even if you dropped it somewhere else.)
  4. All life is based on DNA.
  5. Climate change on Mars has probably killed all the big animals, except the ones that look like rodents and jelly donuts. To catch them you’d need a mousetrap or a donut box. But it would cost 10 trillion dollars to send the mousetrap or donut box back to Earth. And why should you do that, when we already have plenty of rodents and donuts here at home?
  6. We can send a DNA sequencer to Mars. (Since it will be dropped onto the planet from orbit, wrap it in lots of bubble packing. The best thing would be to design a DNA sequencer that is completely made of Legos, which can be assembled by the mechanical arm on the rover.)
  7. Collect some Martian DNA with a Q-tip. (Also pack the Q-tip in bubble packing, because it might get bent.)
  8. Have the sequencer analyze the Martian DNA and send the complete sequence back to Earth by radio. (Preferably broadband, at a rate a lot faster than my modem.)
  9. Make sure you only have DNA from one organism, rather than thousands of different ones. Otherwise you may get a cross between a rat and a jelly donut. (Hmm… have to think about that one.)
  10. Fire up the DNA synthesizer in your lab and rebuild the DNA of the Martian organism.
  11. Implant the DNA in… an Earth cell? (…Have to think about that one, too.)
  12. Clone it and let it grow into an alien. (Helpful tip: since you don’t know how big it will grow to be, use a really big Petri dish.)
  13. Try to contain the alien in the lab. (Install a nuclear device so that you can destroy the lab if it escapes.)

What could possibly go wrong?

There are always skeptics around who will point out niggly things like the fact that the Martian soil contains up to about 15% iron, about three times that on Earth. Scientists have reported that excess iron damages DNA in an animal’s body, so it has to be controlled – for example, by the hemoglobin molecules in our blood cells that grab hold of it and glue it into big crystals. But evolution always finds an answer, even on Mars. Martians probably have blood cells the size of basketballs.

Some people are even skeptical about #4 – the idea that Martian life would be based on DNA. Wouldn’t the environment of Mars a couple of billion years ago have been different? Isn’t some other type of self-replicating chemistry possible? Does the starting recipe of the primoridal soup matter? Won’t any environment inevitably produce DNA, if you cook it long enough? (Try this in your kitchen.)

But those are just the skeptics talking. They don’t know about the paper written by Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel back in 1973, after a week in which they drank waaay too much coffee. The two biochemists proposed that there’s an alien spaceship that floats from galaxy to galaxy, seeding planets with DNA. It’s the reason why on Star Trek, most of the aliens look human, except for the funny ears. They also have different wrinkles on their faces. They also behave strangely, but then, aliens didn’t have the benefit of growing up in an Earth family that teaches you proper manners.

That paper didn’t make it into Nature. It was close, but one of the referees wrote: “I am well aware of Francis Crick’s reputation as a Nobel laureate. His eminent qualifications do not, however, prevent him from occasionally being a dingbat. I refer you to another paper in which he explains dreams.”

Crick’s is only one version of the Panspermia hypothesis. Other scientists think that DNA might not have originated on Earth, but this didn’t require an alien spaceship. It could have been assembled in a gassy cloud in space, probably the Crab Nebula – it certainly looks sinister, like it’s up to something.

That DNA floats around, maybe passes through a black hole or a wormhole, and when it comes out it glues itself to an asteroid. Or maybe dark matter. Then it goes on to inseminate the entire universe.

There’s yet another version of panspermia called “Necropanspermia”, which proposes that not only did DNA originate with aliens, but that the aliens were zombies. Here, too, the magazine Wired provides science with titillating new information: The article begins this way: “Life on Earth could have grown from the broken remains of alien viruses that, although dead, still contained enough information to give rise to new life.” Ergo: zombie viruses. Actually, I’m really hoping that Craig Venter will find their DNA on Mars and fax it back to Earth. That’s just what we need, a bunch of alien zombies on the loose.

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I am a science writer at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, author of fiction and popular science books, an artist, and a professional musician who performs on the viola da gamba and Medieval and Renaissance stringed instruments. I edit manuscripts of all types and teach the full range of scientific communication skills. I am doing theoretical work in this subject - see for example

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